By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Correspondent

At the start of 2020, Holy Nativity Church in Rockledge, Pennsylvania, was in no hurry to act on a long-discussed proposal to replace grass with a vegetable garden next to the parking lot. Another year of mowing was on the horizon.

But plans changed fast when economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis hit home. Area food pantries put out calls for help to meet a 30- to 40-percent surge in need. Holy Nativity raised $3,000 from the community, gathered tools and rallied volunteers to plant crops that will soon supply the local emergency food system.

For three years, the garden “was talked about but it never came to life,” said the Rev. Mike Rau, rector. “Then COVID happened. That was the opportunity we had for this new ministry.”

From California to Connecticut, congregations are borrowing a page from history by planting extra rows of crops — akin to victory gardens of World War I and World War II — to meet mounting local needs for emergency food as unemployment rates skyrocket. More were expected to join the trend as the Episcopal Church on June 1 rolled out the Good News Gardens Movement to support congregations in ramping up food production on church-owned land.

Staff Officer for Evangelism Jerusalem Greer at her family farm in Arkansas

“Everyone can do something,” said Jerusalem Greer, staff officer for evangelism in the Episcopal Church and coordinator of the Good News Gardens Movement, from her farm in Arkansas. “Everyone can plant more. That can mean planting for the first time. Everyone can pray, and everyone can proclaim Good News with their garden.”

Hunger has been spreading as fast as the novel coronavirus. The number of emergency food sites (e.g., food pantries and soup kitchens) that have closed since the pandemic began could be as high as 10,800, according to Feeding America, a national network of food banks, pantries and meal programs. One major reason: many depend on senior citizens who can no longer volunteer because they’re at high risk for complications if they get infected.

Meanwhile food banks distributed 32 percent more food in April 2020 than a year earlier. Feeding America projects the number of Americans depending on the emergency food system could reach 54 million in this pandemic, up from the 37 million deemed food insecure by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a September 2019 report.

Now churches are fast becoming part of their local pantries’ supply chains. In Michigan, for example, 15 Episcopal congregations have signed up to be part of Good News Gardens since April. As participants, they’re receiving packs of seedlings and garden education, as well as Bible study and reflection questions. Also taking part are 24 households, three non-Episcopal churches and other nonprofits.

“Some churches are putting in entirely new gardens because they know their growing efforts will be supported by a garden educator and they want to make a difference with food security in their communities,” said the Rev. Nurya Love Parish, whose Plainsong Farm is coordinating the movement in Michigan.

For years, churches have seen potential for improving environmental stewardship by turning underutilized land into tracts for raising vegetable crops, fruit trees, and livestock. For example, the Diocese of Los Angeles’s Seeds of Hope program supports food production projects on unused land at every local church. For many, it’s a way to think globally and act locally. Gardening practices to regenerate soil, such as planting cover crops and using organic compost, are promoted as means to sequester carbon and help slow climate change.

But nothing in recent decades has catalyzed the national church gardening movement like COVID-19.

“I am just breathless right now with the rate of change,” said Rose Hayden-Smith, senior warden at St. Paul’s Church in Ventura, California, and author of Sowing the Seeds of Victory: American Gardening Programs of World War I.

She sees churches mobilizing rapidly because small parcels have become urgently needed to boost the local food supply. And churches have a history of springing into action to make their land useful in a crisis.

“In all of these gardening surges that we’ve had, like the victory gardens of World War I and World War II, definitely churches have gardens,” Hayden-Smith said. “There’s an education piece. There’s a resource piece. I think the church can be really valuable in that way going forward.”

Eager to make a dent in today’s food crisis, congregations now have the social ministry catalyst they’ve needed to enact environmental stewardship plans — or at least the gardening component. And it’s coming with an extra benefit: space in the dirt where people can be together at a safe distance during a prolonged, stressful time when worship in person and traditional fellowship haven’t been possible.

Gardening “is one church activity you can continue to do,” said Brian Sellers-Petersen, agrarian missioner for the Diocese of Olympia and a collaborator on the Good News Gardens Movement. “If you have a large enough church garden, you can physically distance. Or you can set up a schedule where people come one or two at a time to work in the garden.”

By expanding gardens, churches are tapping into a national trend fueled by Americans staying home, seeking healthy outlets, and attending to food security issues. Burpee Seeds, for instance, has reportedly seen business double during the pandemic. Retailers have reported selling out of gardening supplies, from plants to soil and compost.

In this atmosphere, churches are finding neighbors eager to get involved. For instance, at the new garden installed this year at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea Church in Bay Shore, N.Y., a Boy Scout troop is among those helping raise cauliflower and broccoli on an expanded tract earmarked for Island Harvest, a food bank that supplies food pantries on Long Island.

“Middle school children are coming to help out, and they’re learning about stewardship and respecting the land,” said Stephanie Campbell, garden coordinator at St. Peter’s. “They’ll now say, ‘We need the bugs. We don’t kill the spiders. We need these creatures. They’re so important.’ As more people come, walk around and participate, it’s changing them.”

Congregations are finding ways to share more of what they have. For example, in a garden that launched last year, St. Paul’s Church in Riverside, Connecticut, is now adding new beds and transitioning a children’s patch to grow tomatoes and zucchini because that’s what the local pantry has requested. St. Paul’s is on track to donate 50 percent beyond the 200 pounds it gave away in 2019, according to the rector, the Rev. Stephanie Johnson, who also chairs the Episcopal Church Task Force on the Care of Creation and Environmental Racism.

“’Loving our neighbor’ means doing all that we can to help as many people as possible to get through the crisis,” Johnson said. “Our ministry of growing and donating healthy produce is a small way of showing our love for others.”

Some congregations are also helping expand gardens beyond the church grounds. St. Andrew’s Church in Fullerton, California, acted quickly when a nearby arboretum had to cancel its annual Spring planting sale due to COVID-19 restrictions. The church collected the arboretum’s plantings, which would have otherwise perished, and hosted a drive-thru “Victory Gardens to Go” event that equipped many young families with affordably priced plants to start their first gardens.

“It definitely touched the neighborhood, the younger families, the people just starting out with small plots of land,” said the Rev. Beth Kelley, rector of St. Andrew’s. “They would often ask us, as we put it in their cars: ‘Are there instructions for growing it?’ We’d just say: ‘Call the number at the church. We’ll help you’.”

For the Good News Garden Movement, 2020 will be a pilot growing season, Greer said. Meeting COVID-related needs will be a priority, but the goal is to equip churches to raise food well beyond the COVID crisis. Offerings this year will include webinars and a monthly e-newsletter with tips for how to grow and share the bounty effectively. A new “Episcopal Food Movement” Facebook group to support the effort had by late-May drawn over 1000 members.

“The earth is still celebrating and alive and going forth” during the pandemic, Greer said. “The flowers are blooming. The sprouts are coming up. And as long as the birds are still singing, I have hope.  You can plant hope to share.”